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Demand-side ethics reform

November 28, 2006

Tags Legal SystemPhilosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

Early this year, ethics reform topped Congress' agenda. Eventually, the House and Senate passed different versions, but their differences were never reconciled. As a result, both bills will disappear at the end of the current session, leaving only a legacy of hot air about members' desire for reform.

After campaigning against "the culture of corruption," the Democrats want to be known as the reformers. Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who promised to enact ethics reform, if Democrats took the House, is now promising such reforms on the 110th Congress' opening day.

Unfortunately, Democrats' proposed reforms mimic the failed Republican reforms in focusing on the demand side of the political influence market, while any really useful reform must come from the supply side. Reforms such as restrictions on travel and gifts and longer waits before former lawmakers can become lobbyists aim to reduce special interests' ability to "educate" public servants to look favorably on their demand for federal largesse. They do nothing to reduce legislators' ability to supply such favors, which is what creates the demands for special legislative treatment, by making them potentially profitable investments.

The problem with focusing on the demand side of the political influence market is that the number of ways demands for and compensation to repay political favoritism can be accomplished is uncountable, far beyond effective enumeration in any enforceable ethics rule. As a result, as with every previous reform of what is already the most "reformed" institution in America, new mechanisms quickly replace the old, and reform becomes no more than a substitution of one means of corruption for another.

Even the fact that our public servants can discover so many things needing reform, after innumerable previous "fixes," reveals how many paths to undue influence there are. However, if legislators' ability to create favors was reduced, there would be less bait to lure corrupt influence, and real improvement could result. The best supply-side solution would be if legislators took the Constitution seriously again, because special interest largesse is completely antithetical to Americans' general welfare, which the Constitution established as the essential rationale for government and its members.

Unfortunately, there is no apparent demand for that from either party in Washington. But reining in lawmakers' power to insert earmarks in legislation would clearly improve things. Earmarks allow legislators to steer funds to pet projects, bypassing not only the low standard the budget process imposes, but almost all visibility and voter accountability. The result is a yearly cornucopia of thousands of earmarks, worth billions, in projects not in the national interest (because the theft involved must harm most citizens). Eliminating them would take away a major supply source of political favors, which are, in fact, just delegations of government authority to advance particular interests by abusing the rest of us.

The fact that residents benefiting from earmarks, which virtually define pork barrel spending, are unwilling to pay for them out of their own pockets, reveals how wasteful they are. If they were more than mechanisms to buy votes from those whose assent was necessary, they would not wait until others could be forced to pick up the tab by way of Washington. The pitifully weak, self-serving justifications offered just reinforce that point, and remind us that the whole process involves politicians extorting other politicians' constituents, in exchange for their willingness to allow reciprocal extortion of their constituents.

The ethics proposals again being touted in Washington are designed to appear as important reforms, to distinguish incoming Democrats from "corrupt" Republicans. But erecting another set of Swiss-cheese barriers to the market for political favors will provide little real reform. For that, we need restrictions on legislators' ability to supply those favors. An elimination of earmarks would be a real start in that direction. But it would undercut politicians' power. That makes it the real test of whose interests the "reformers" now preparing to take power in Washington are most concerned with.

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